Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Last Stand of the Greatest Generation

Yesterday in Washington, D.C. the "Million Vet March" set upon national parks in D.C. to raise visibility about the ills caused by the goverment shutdown. Building on some modest momentum from early October incidents, in which veterans scheduled to visit the monuments could not get in owing to the shutdown, this October 13th march aimed to focus and recirculate this outrage. To this end, conservatives, led by Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, gathered  to storm major national parks in D.C. A focal point of these protests are the "Barrycades," the name given to the small portable metal fences set up by the National Parks Service to block off museums and memorials from the public.

These "Barrycades" were central in the visual and textual representation of yesterday's protests. Take this photo, which I found at conservative blog Powerline:
This image does considerable historical work, some at the surface and other at depth. The callback to Reagan, whose demand that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down" the Berlin Wall is considered a high point in the conservative imaginary, if not that of much of the nation, suggests not only a moment of parallel historical importance but also a geopolitical frame of friends and enemies, where the "wall" (which we tend to conceive of as suggesting deep political divides instead of the perhaps more appropriate permeable imbrications of political life) structures the nation in a manner which implies divisions themselves are the problem.

Applying this implied attachment to unity to domestic politics, however, offers challenges that underscore the disparate nature of foreign and domestic policy. In foreign policy political rhetors face powerful constraints when they use rhetorics of unity and cosmopolitanism: namely, not only does the appeal of the Westphalian nation state system remain power (and routinely indexed by the inability of media and experts to read international politics through anything beyond  Manichean frame) but foreign policy still involves the "foreign" and so rhetorics of us and them, however noxious, at least fall on tried and true targets: other (and different) nations and populations. The effects of this rhetoric are predictable and the difference between "us" and "them" functions to stabilize American identity over and against those external identities. Even if it doesn't totally stabilize such identities, these rhetorics of us and them do provide predictable routes through which argument to be joined.

In the context of domestic politics, the dynamic is different. If, following the work of Jeremy Engels, Jennifer Mercieca, and others, we live in a demophilic political culture, that is, one which fetishizes ideas of unity and harmony over and above agonistic values of conflict and struggle, then a rhetoric of "tear down this wall" constitutes a demophilic call for the abolition of politics, the destruction of difference in the name of unity and togetherness. The "Barrycades" represent the divisions that have poisoned and ruined our politics. That the figure in the photo is a wheelchair-bound veteran is also double significant. First, the image of the veteran summons up a Brokawian "Greatest Generation," notably a generation of Americans that lived before the "senseless wars" of Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, not to mention the salient historical notion of a unique political division in the Sixties and the madness of Watergate that followed. American democracy was ok until the "walls" of the Cold War and walls between "people" and government were drawn. Second, a figure in a wheelchair invariably summons up a well of sentiment attached to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is widely known for being one of the most able "movers" of the federal political system. With a political system deadlocked and economic catastrophe looming, the reappearance of a physically disabled figure summons the template for political action (and, not very subtly, implies the "action" is so easy even the disabled can do it!)

This image suggests a continuation of the political strategy employed by the Tea Party: investment in empty ideas of unity and togetherness paired with feel-good pablum that angers no one. After all, who could be against national monuments? Moreover, war veterans are some of the most universally beloved figures in the economy of public discourse. As reports indicated, however, the protest was poorly attended. This might suggest the well of "empty" anger based on the valorization of unity is running dry.

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